Fri, Apr 30 2010 5:02 PM William Green

Of ants and men: Self-organization and the free society.

A hurricane develops over the Atlantic, a thunderstorm over the midwest.  A dust devil whirls like a dervish across a vacant lot.  A flock of starlings dances, amoeba-like in the sky.  A hive of bees finds the best nectar sources.  A colony of ants finds food, establishes trails, and builds its nest.  A colony of termites builds a mound several-meters-high, filled with an intricate network of tunnels and chambers.  All without direction.  All without centralized control.  Order emerges from chaos.  Structures crystallize from the interaction of particles or individuals with their environment and each other.  These self-organizing processes are striking and beautiful demonstrations of the fact that order and structure do not require planning and control.

Ecosystems, ecologies, and economies, arise from similar, undirected process.  Great structures developed from uncountable interactions between individual animals and humans.  Ants, bees, and termites act according to simple rules that are preprogrammed into them.  These rules, like the rules of Conway's Game of Life, generate the amazing structures and organization that we see in the behavior of the colonies.   

Rakkur Crowley and I discussed these ideas recently on his radio show, including several specific examples of how these kinds of processes work in the biological world.  It turns out that these self-organizing processes constitute a powerful argument for the voluntary society.  Ants and termites do not produce their marvelous structures through central planning and coercive control, but only through the application of simple rules, by individuals, as they respond to each other and their changing environment.  Individual ants see no further than their immediate surroundings, and yet structures much larger than themselves are produced.   Likewise, humans have developed rules that govern our interactions with each other and our environment, and as in the case of the ants, these rules produce intricate structures and organization (e.g. language, common law, free economies), all without the need for central planning.  This is Adam Smith's "invisible hand" at work.  Individual acts of self-interest (self-interest is the primary "rule" that governs human action) result in grand structures that are beneficial to the whole of society.    If it were not so, time would have eliminated the (ultimately) self-destructive behavior (the rule would change).

The general process is the same in ants and humans, but the result is different. The individual ant acts according to it's genetic programming.  The ants simply act in a way that increases the likelihood that their genes will be passed on.  In ants, this self-organizing process has led to "communism" or "collectivism", a society in which the individuals sacrifice themselves for the "good" of the whole (worker ants are sterile females).  Because their fathers come from unfertilized eggs, the female worker ants are more genetically related to their sisters than they would be to their own offspring, and so their famous altruistic behavior ensures a greater likelihood of the survival of their genes. The genetics of humans don't work that way, and so communism has not arisen in humans apart from within small family groups and through coercion.  As the famous ant researcher, E. O. Wilson said, "Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species."  In the case of humans, as in most other animals, competition is most conducive to success of the species. Free human economies are actually more like ecosystems in this respect, and no less self-organized.

In the case of humans, the outcome is predictable.  Because every individual acts in his/her own self-interest, the overall structure must also be in his/her interest, since it is simply the sum total or embodiment of all of the individual, self-interested actions.  As Ludwig von Mises wrote,"In a game there are winners and losers. But a business deal is always advantageous for both parties. If both the buyer and the seller were not to consider the transaction as the most advantageous action they could choose under the prevailing conditions, they would not enter into the deal."  Every action, every exchange leaves the actors better off, according to their estimation.

Those who would have humans be ants are deluded.  As Flew wrote of Smith's "invisible hand":

"Like so much else in Smith, the argument here begins from an uncynical yet coolly realistic appreciation of our nature. Any political economy for this world must treat people as we are, not as we might become, yet will not. As George Stigler said in a volume of bicentennial essays: The Wealth of Nations is a stupendous palace erected on the granite of self-interest.” It is indeed.  Scottish granite, and erected also on Scottish self-reliance. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self- love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages. Nobody but a beggar chooses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his feflow-citizens” (1 (ii]). "

Of course, the self-interest of man need not be "selfish", either.



Bonabeau et al. A model for the emergence of pillars, walls, and royal chambers in termite nests.  Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B (1998) 353, 1561--1576.

Sumpter, D. J. T. The principles of collective animal behavior.  Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B (2006) 361, 5--22.

Theraulaz et al. The origin of nest complexity in social insects.  Complexity (1998) 3, 15--25.

Theraulaz et al. The formation of spatial patterns in social insects:  from simple behaviours to complex structures. Phil.  Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A (2003) 361, 1263--1282.

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